EL SEGUNDO, CA — The 2009-10 season could not have gone much worse for Los Angeles Kings defenseman prospect Thomas Hickey.
After completing his career in Canadian junior hockey in 2008-09 with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League, turning in his best season in the WHL with 16 goals and 35 assists for 51 points in 57 games, the 5-10, 182-pound native of Calgary, Alberta graduated to the American Hockey League.
But once Hickey donned the sweater of the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL [the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate] this past season, his hockey career was put mostly on hold due to injury—a shoulder injury suffered in late November, 2009 that required surgery, keeping him off the ice until April 1, 2010, just four games before the Monarchs began their run in the AHL playoffs.
“I got into four [games] before the regular season was over,” said Hickey.
But Hickey’s bad luck was not yet over, as he wound up on the shelf once again just before the playoffs began.
“It was the day before the playoffs [began],” Hickey lamented. “It was sort of a freak high ankle sprain. It’s one of those aggravating things.”
Hickey would miss the first two rounds of the playoffs before returning to the lineup for the Eastern Conference Finals.
“It’s tough going down just before the playoffs, but I was thankful to get healthy just before we were finished in the last round when I got to play,” he said.
To say that Hickey’s 2009-10 season was somewhat of a lost season would be an understatement.
“It’s been really tough,” said Hickey. “It’s been frustrating more than anything. You’re anxious and you start to play good and then something happens.”
“It’s just been a series of [injuries] over the last two years,” added Hickey, who also suffered an ankle injury that required surgery after the 2008-09 season.
To be sure, the time lost this past season has delayed Hickey’s development. But the season was not a total loss.
“You could say that [it was a lost season] as far as developing hockey skills [is concerned], but there’s other things you learn as a player,” he explained. “Going through those injuries is probably the hardest thing I’ve had [to deal with] in my hockey career. I think it makes me a stronger person.”
“You have to learn to deal with those things when you’re not getting played much,” he elaborated. “You have to learn how to train and how to stay ready. The biggest thing for me is staying ready and knowing that when I do get the chance to come back in that I’m ready to contribute.”
Hickey firmly believes that he can make up for lost time.
“There’s no doubt that playing games and getting experience develops your hockey skills,” said Hickey. “You look at the [Kings 2010 Development Camp] we have here with forty prospects working on their hockey skills in the summer—that’s something we do every single day even when we’re not here.”
“There’s ways to get it back and ways to try to get ahead even though I’ve lost a lot of time,” added Hickey.
One look at Hickey, who was selected by the Kings in the first round (fourth overall) of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, and it becomes immediately apparent that he is small for a defenseman, especially in the National Hockey League. In fact, he is even small as NHL forwards go, which has many questioning whether or not he can withstand the pounding he will take from opposing team’s forwards.
Those who attended the Kings 2009 Rookie Tournament may remember that Hickey took a few big hits in one of the games against the Phoenix Coyotes rookie team, including one huge hit in the corner that had spectators cringing.
“I remember that [hit], absolutely,” Hickey recalled. “That’s one of those things—it was a clean hit. In a rookie camp, for every guy out there, you want to make an impact and you’re not so worried about your well-being as you are getting on the team.”
“I got hit a few times in that game,” Hickey noted. “I was putting myself out there and I was so anxious to make plays and show the parts of my game that I excel in, so I exposed myself to that. That’s the give and take.”
“As the season goes on, you can’t put yourself [into a vulnerable position] all the time. But in an evaluation process, you sort of have to step outside the boundaries a little bit.”
Moving up to the AHL level has given him a glimpse of what it will be like against the bigger, tougher, stronger players he will be facing in the future.
“Although I didn’t play a lot this past year, it helped to play against pros and bigger guys,” he said. “I learned from that—that was probably my biggest weakness last year, so I’ll be a step up when it comes to that. Those are the two main things that I have to work on the most.”
Hickey pointed out that adding bulk to his frame is just part of the solution.
“One thing I’ve really learned is that it’s not so much muscle you have, especially with Tim Adams, the [Kings Strength and Conditioning] coach here,” said Hickey. “It’s about how stable you are, how stable your mid-section is.”
“If you go into an NHL dressing room, you’re not going to see guys who look like football players,” he added. “It’s not all about the bulk and the muscle. It’s about how tight they are in their core and how durable their body is.”
“I’m not so concerned about coming into camp weighing 200 pounds and being 5-11 or 6-0. I’m concerned about getting my body where it needs to be. I’m working on preventing [injuries], like everyone is here. I’m looking forward to that and playing a full, healthy season.”
In addition to his strength and conditioning work, Hickey is also rehabilitating his surgically repaired shoulder, which is not at one hundred percent despite the fact that he has been cleared to play.
“When you come off a big surgery like that you need time to rebuild your strength,” Hickey stressed. “You can be cleared to play, which I am, but then it’s about getting stronger and getting to the point that you’re stronger on that injured arm than you are the one that’s healthy.”
“I know I’m not there, but I’ve got two-and-a-half months to work on it,” Hickey added. “Like any athlete coming back from any injury, you’re not one hundred percent just because you’re cleared to play. You’ve still got a ways to go after that.”
“You can lift as many weights as you want, but there’s so many little muscles and little things I’ve been working on with the training staff they have here. So I’m fortunate to be working with them every day.”
Given that he is playing catch-up, Hickey is also working on his hockey skills this summer.
“I think my shooting needs to improve,” he noted. “That’s something I worked on a lot last summer. The shoulder was another setback, so it’s going through that all over again and making sure my shot’s ready.”
Despite having lost so much development time this past season, Hickey believes he has a strong chance to make the Kings’ 2010-11 roster.
“I think it’s perfectly realistic,” Hickey said of his chances to make the Kings roster out of training camp this fall. “I know I was close last year. It didn’t work out. There’s always numbers, there’s always guys ready to play. I know I was close, so if I come in and show what I learned from the last camp, I’ll be a step ahead of where I was then.”
“It’s all about playing good and being ready to go,” Hickey added. “If I can do that, I’ve got a very good chance of making [the Kings’ lineup].”
Perhaps, but only if he can stay healthy.
“[Injuries are] part of hockey and everyone’s going to go through injuries,” said Hickey. “I hope mine are over with.”
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